It’s an understandably rare complaint that cinema possesses so few believable mother/daughter-in-law relationships. The inherent tyranny of the art form’s male gaze notwithstanding, there’s something convolutedly cosmic about a partnership that illustrates (among other things) the breast’s transformation from a symbol of nurture to a symbol of arousal and back again with mutual jaundice. Predictably, the most mythic examples of mother/daughter-in-law conflicts are steeped in this Oedipal mistrust, with the raptor-like older woman leading the younger erotic goddess fatally astray (cf. the trope-wielding Madame X). But while connubial sperm, rather than blood, is the agent that socially adheres these females, that doesn’t mean their intimacy is necessarily harnessed to masculine perspective.
In fact, the most memorably atypical renderings of this kinship dispense with the son/husband’s presence altogether—though Japan, where three of these films were made, perhaps has the advantage of a feudal heritage where such abandonment was at one time common. Whatever the benefit of this cultural inheritance, however, the long evening that Shukichi (Chishū Ryū) spends with the gentle, widowed Noriko (Setsuko Hara) in Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story climaxes with a filial betrayal so tender it seems to define a new kind of love. And skulking the other side of the coin are two appropriately half-related horror films Kaneto Shindô directed in the 1960s: Onibaba (Devil Woman) and Kuroneko (Black Cat).
I was initially disappointed with Onibaba’s slow, shock-teasing simmer; I rented it, back in college, for the sight of the frisson-provoking mask that bitterly bedevils the two murderous women at the film’s center, and grew weary of the sex-starved build up that precedes it. The crucial context of Kuroneko, however, reveals the two movies as distinctly successful tellings of the same deadly siren folklore, linked like parallel segments of a bifurcated trail in a dim, forbidden wood. Onibaba is Noh, staged with talismanic face wear, head-choking camera angles, and tall, asphyxiating ferns. Kuroneko is Kabuki, characterized by wide, blackened spaces, narrow, wooden paths, and airborne swordfights. In the former, magic is viewed with intimidated skepticism; in the latter, it’s confidently embraced at face value. And though both attempt to unlock feminine sexuality, they confront keyholes at opposing ends of the subject: Onibaba sweats and caterwauls like a hard-earned orgasm where in Kuroneko intercourse is a slippery memory from which one must be frigidly protected. In other words, Onibaba is the reckless, body-conscious daughter-in-law, and Kuroneko the patient, spirit-oriented mother.
Even the narrative structure of Shindô’s dyad is palindromic, with Onibaba’s crescendo echoing with ferocity into the ravenously paranormal opening of Kuroneko. After the main titles are superimposed over a curtain-like forest of thickly phallic bamboo, we observe a platoon of nomadic samurai pillage the house of Yone (Nobuko Otowa), whose son is occupied in other war-torn regions. The troops form rice-devouring queues with casual imperiousness to systematically violate Yone and her son’s wife Shige (Kiwako Taichi) and then torch the hut, leaving two coal-colored corpses behind for the titular animal to spirit away. And so the vengeful, mournful demons that then haunt the shadowed, stage-like corridors of Rajomon Gate, periodically seducing and slaying soldiers, are both traditional ghosts with unfinished business and transcendental riffs on the fallen women of Kenji Mizoguchi (whose eerie, 360-degree arcs and fluid dolly-pans are imitated in several of the most unsettling moments).
But unlike Onibaba, where the more mature female seeks revenge for having her mortality and humility exposed by the supple widow in her care, the man-hate of Kuroneko is more practical, if no less primitive. These women suffer a domestic betrayal, as the ineffectualness of their absentee protectorate leads to the exploitation of their vulnerability—the desertion is more offensive than the rape. (Occidental versions of this story, particularly from Sweden—The Virgin Spring, Thriller: A Cruel Picture—showily reverse this priority). Their subsequent feline grace, along with retractable claws and twitching, wagging ponytails, suggest both rabid stubbornness and self-sufficiency that would have been impossible in human form without a male partner. Forget the sable hair that occasionally sprouts up about their arms: The scariest thing about these gals is their newfound empowerment. This is the lynchpin of their eroticism too, expressed through the murder protocol endlessly and ritualistically carried out by Yone; she coyly leads misdirected samurai on horseback to the creepily vacant innards of Rajomon Gate, levitates over them sensually, slits their throats open, and sucks their plasma. Onibaba’s fornicating was passionate and secretive; in Kuroneko, the matronly dominatrix has her way with partners (not victims, please) in the open, though none survive their bug-eyed climax.
I’ve recognized more recently, of course, that the fear in Onibaba extends beyond the iconic battle mask and our anticipation of it to the feverish cutting and the manic tightness of the shots, many of which emphasize eyes as though they were windows to our darker half rather than our essence. Kuroneko’s mise-en-scène is even more competently chilling. Double-exposed images of characters’ memories occasionally halve the frame, while peculiar postures come into view after Dutch angles are realigned and our attention is redirected with hypnotic lighting cues. But despite the airy cinematography patterned by Shindô and director of photography Kiyomi Kuroda, the film is ultimately less spectral than it is sepulcher-like; it can only visually float after being anchored by the angrily material flourish of misogyny in the prologue. Like the Headless Horseman, the ghouls seek in vain to reclaim their purloined bodies due to what was lost in the fleshy bargain, but those symbols of purity have been borne away by irreversible putrescence. All they can do is rattle tombstones and necessitate the sculpting of more.
Both Yone and Shigo have to be raped one last time before the film’s close, of course, by the man that surrendered them to the chaos of the Sengoku. When Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) emerges from the political din as a weather-beaten hero, the movie hilariously dissects his uninterestingly filthy erogenous zones—a clay-caked nipple, a callous foot, a bulging loincloth—atop a soundtrack of giggling Mikado maids, accentuating the dusty foolishness of patriarchal sexuality. He’s then cleaned up and dispatched to destroy the Rajomon She-Cats without realizing that doing so will require confronting his most egregious war crime. And like Ugetsu, Kuroneko morphs into an obsessively regretful dialectic that trips into tragedy after lugubrious, otherworldly speculation. But the movie’s ending dismisses Onibaba’s disfigured sense of womanly self-doubt, instead fashioning a brutally mother-knows-best finale. When snow descends upon the last corpse, it’s not a purifying layer but an icy funereal blanket putting to rest gender ruination. Kerouac said it best: Pretty girls make graves, especially the ones you come in and come out of, respectively.